The beginning of the war on terror at the turn of the century coincided with the creation of new euphemisms to describe things that were already well defined. Although military idioms have long tortured language for the sake of specious arguments, there was a new audacity in the way it was being reshaped to excuse the previously inexcusable.
Torture, for example, became ‘enhanced interrogation’ and it didn’t take long for images to leak from Abu Ghraib in Iraq showing the sadism that condoning it had unleashed on those held there, 70-90 percent of whom were innocent. Even the supreme international crime, what amounted to a war of aggression, was sold as a ‘humanitarian intervention’, in Libya, a country that is still in the throes of violent chaos more than a decade later. The slippery slope represented by this NATO action has become clear in the years since as various regional powers like Turkey, the UAE and Qatar have themselves intervened there and thrown money and arms at a variety of unsavory local actors.
It can be argued that we are seeing the fruits of the acceptance of wars of aggression in Iraq and Libya in Ukraine, as the Russian Federation follows these interventions with one of its own, illegally trying to impose its will on what seemed like a much weaker neighbor.
The 2003 ‘Shock and Awe’ air campaign in Iraq targeted that country’s civilian infrastructure. So enthralled were the pundits promoting it in the media by the colored lights and explosions of a tragedy played as entertainment on cable news that they didn’t bother to think about the human costs of bombing things like power stations and water treatment facilities.
Now many of these same voices are indignant when Russia commits similar war crimes in Ukraine. One term that has established itself in the talking points of those who promote militarism throughout the world is ‘collateral damage’. It will live on in the lexicon of conflict as it’s useful in sanitizing the murder of innocents that is always one of the cruelest consequences of modern warfare. The term can and probably should be viewed more broadly, as when conflicts in one area or region have serious impacts outside of it, spreading misery in unforeseen ways.
Today we are seeing collateral damage from the war in Ukraine in many poorer countries that relied on food and fertilizer from both it and the Russian aggressors. Instead of bombs and bullets it is hunger that stalks these innocents.
Rather than recognizing the slippery slopes they’re standing on, Western policymakers and the pundit class who act as their salespeople rely on our collective lack of memory and a philosophy based around the principle of ‘do as we say not as we do’ when discussing matters of war and peace. In doing so, they sow the seeds of future tragedies, most of them unintended.
Derek Royden is a Canadian journalist.